Reviewed by Christopher Walker

The IH Journal has a long and proud history of highlighting the best new releases in the world of language teaching literature, but more often than not we look at published work by the industry’s many talented and experienced creative forces.

This book, Any Language You Want, is not one of those - it is the maiden self-published effort of Fabio Cerpelloni, an Italian student of English who decided to reflect on his experiences of reaching the highest levels of proficiency so that he might share what he had learned along the way. It is a short but important book, and one that I highly recommend. The only negative that I think can be levelled against the book, besides its brevity, is the price point that Cerpelloni has set - £5 for the Kindle version of a 60-page text represents, for me, too hefty an outlay. This is a shame, as Cerpelloni’s points are well-made, and often share much in common with modern thinkers on language learning and acquisition.

Many of his points certainly chimed with me. When Cerpelloni writes, “I wrote essays on a variety of topics without getting feedback from anyone but myself,” he is saying something that I said in writing my own book, 66 Lessons for Autodidacts. It is guidance that I have suggested to my own students, in fact - though my students have never really followed such advice, perhaps thinking it was only given in by a teacher too lazy to mark the work they were producing. But I do know that it works, as anyone who writes for a hobby will know - it doesn’t matter if you are writing for yourself or for an audience (such as for your teacher); the critical point is that you practice and think about what you’re doing when you write.

Cerpelloni also makes reference to native speakerism, and draws the same food-related parallel that I know from Journal-contributor André Hedlund. The idea that you should search for a qualified teacher and ignore whether that teacher is a native speaker has become common currency in EFL circles today - but more among schools and teachers than across the customer base. Works like Cerpelloni’s will help to spread the message better than many teachers can on their own.

The advice that Cerpelloni offers on developing active as well as passive understanding of lexis is generally very useful. I agree with him when he suggests taking a recently explored piece of language and shoe-horning it into a conversation or piece of written communication. At first, this might seem like an artificial way to master a language - but I have tried it myself in Polish, and it does indeed work. This is why my Polish-speaking friends know I am uparty - stubborn; I learnt the word and made sure to employ it. Whenever I teach exam classes, I tell my students to work on their own ‘personal dictionary’ of lexis they want to use in the exam, and then to look at this list shortly before sitting their test. The feedback from the students who did this and subsequently passed their exams (though this is not to assume a causal link between the advice and the result) generally felt the approach to be effective - further supporting what Cerpelloni says in his book. The same goes with speaking, which Cerpelloni discusses in a later chapter - there is nothing wrong with, and certainly nothing embarrassing about, practising speaking on your own.

One thing that Cerpelloni set out to do, and that he describes in an introduction that is about as long as any of the chapters, was to offer contradictory advice on how best to learn a language. For instance, having said in one chapter that you should always pause when you see a new word so that you might begin to learn more about its meaning and use, the next chapter suggests letting the language wash over you, understanding what you can from the context, and not worrying about achieving a specific rather than a universal understanding. Tying it all together, each chapter ends with the statement, “This is how to learn a language.”

This approach works better than you might expect, and goes to show that what works for one person might not work for the next; it also demonstrates both how much and how little we know about language learning and acquisition. If we could be sure that one particular method would be successful in every case, books like Cerpelloni’s would not be necessary - but Cerpelloni, by building each point around an anecdote taken from his own learner history, proves how valuable it is to consider everything and to never disregard a potential help in learning a language.

That said, I don’t completely agree with every one of Cerpelloni’s ideas. Comparing a learner with three years’ experience of the language with a three-year-old native speaker of the language leads to mistaken conclusions - as well as undermining the anti-native-speakerism attitude of earlier chapters. This is not quite how language learning works, and I suppose one minor complaint that some readers will have is that Cerpelloni is not clear on the difference between learning (which is what he did) and acquiring (which is what an infant does). Whether you think that such distinctions ought to be present in a book like this is a matter of taste - for me, I’m content with Cerpelloni’s lack of academic backgrounding of his theories and ideas, as this is a personal testimony rather than a piece of research.

Overall, I am glad that I read Any Language You Want. It served as a reminder to me of the various struggles faced and experienced by my learners, and the fact that this is the work of a learner rather than a teacher certainly helped to build such a positive impression. I fear that many potential readers might be put off by the high price point coupled with just how short the book is - I think Cerpelloni could easily have written something three times as long without losing this reader’s attention. That would be a shame, as there is something interesting on every page of this book.

Any Language You Want is available via Fabio Cerpelloni’s website as well as on Amazon.